'The Martian' Has a Lot to Teach Earthlings

scene of the astronaut on mars
scene of the astronaut on mars

At a time when science often seems to be on the defensive - from the safety of vaccines and genetically modified organisms to the very existence of evolution and climate change - I have found a hopeful sign.

On Mars.

Well, not literally on Mars, but in the movie The Martian. Because the film starring Matt Damon as an American astronaut stranded alone on the Red Planet is perhaps the warmest, most heartening endorsement of the value of science and technology I have seen in popular culture in a long, long time.

And as a result, I think it could actually inspire many young people to pursue the kinds of scientific careers this world badly needs from them if we're going to cope successfully with the 21st century. In addition, I think the movie holds within it some lessons for how we should cope with the decades ahead.

Without needing to issue a spoiler alert, I can tell you that the first challenge faced by the marooned character, known in the movie as Mark Watney, is his food supply. Somehow he has to figure out how to grow potatoes in a place where temperatures are extreme on both ends and where there is neither soil nor water. (The moviemakers obviously wrote their script, based on Andy Weir's novel by the same name, long before the very recent discovery of water on Mars.)

Although Watney's situation is extreme, it does evoke the increasingly challenging circumstances farmers on our own planet face as a result of climate change. Although at one time the jury was out as to whether climate change would be good or bad for agriculture overall, we now know that it's having a net negative effect, and that effect will worsen unless we take steps to mitigate it as soon as possible.

Fortunately for Watney, however - and for moviegoers whose idea of a good film is something other than watching a main character wither and die - he is a skilled farmer; he was the botanist on the NASA mission that mistakenly left him for dead on Mars. So he ingeniously rises to the challenges of precipitating water out of materials he has on board, of fertilizing the Martian dust (organically), and of protecting his crops from the searing heat and intense cold.

In other words, he leverages knowledge and ingenuity for himself to farm, and that spirit parallels what we as a species will have to do for 9.6 billion people by the year 2050. Because of population growth, and because of rising prosperity, we'll have to increase our food supply by 70 percent, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) says; some observers put the figure at 100 percent. And we'll have to do it sustainably, so we don't move toward an environment as inhospitable to agriculture as the one on Mars.

Watney uses what he humorously calls his "botany powers" to overcome his challenges; we'll have to use our own, and just like his, they'll have to feature a mastery of science - with a place as well for traditional methods. There is room for both, and arguing about the merits one versus the other instead of a discussion focused on solutions wastes time and resources. We will all be much better off if we look for common ground and work together.

Besides growing food, Watney also faces the little problem of getting home, when that place just happens to be 140 million miles away. Just for starters, that involves using solar energy to power his Martian rover, navigating the rover across the unmapped terrain to the right location on Mars, and much more, which I won't go into for fear of spoiling the film.

I will say, however, that the rescue mission organized in his behalf features international cooperation and key roles for women. National rivalries are put aside; people all over the world unite behind the cause; and a NASA astronaut who is female - clearly by no coincidence - makes some of the pivotal decisions, both scientific and managerial, with scientists of all origins

All of which also evokes the point that here on Earth, we: 1) need to pool our resources and work together to solve our challenges; and 2) need the brainpower of women and minority groups who are currently not well represented in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) fields.

Regarding point No. 1, no one organization or even category of organizations can solve our problems by itself. We need governments, companies, non-governmental organizations, universities, research institutes, and more - all over the world - pulling together. And regarding point No. 2, we need dramatic increases in the STEM participation rates for women and minorities. The barriers that have discouraged these groups from entering these fields are not only hurting them, but threatening all the rest of us by denying us their talents.

If The Martian has one message for us above all, however, it's the unique role that science and technology play in human survival. "In the face of overwhelming odds," Watney says to himself early in the film, "I have only one option: I am going to have to science the (expletive deleted) out of this."

The odds against us today aren't that extreme, but they're challenging enough. Here's to hoping we'll take heed.